Teaching Award for
Dr. Roxanne Springer
This article in the Duke Dialogue appeared on the occastion of the award presentation:
Scientists must use the brain-straining road map of quantum mechanics to navigate spaces as small as atoms, where the absolutes of normal life are replaced by probabilities.
In this quantum world, electrons, for example, don't really revolve like planets around an atom's center. Instead, they exist somewhere in a cloud of possible locations, some more probable than others. And, further challenging normal perceptions, electrons can exist both as very small particles and as waves.
Making sense of it all requires both a mind stretch and some fairly high-level mathematics. In fact, Fundamentals of Quantum Mechanics is "one of our hardest courses," acknowledged Berndt Mueller, the chairman of Duke's Department of Physics, in a letter that successfully nominated course instructor Roxanne Springer for the 1997-98 Robert B. Cox Trinity College Distinguished Teaching Award.
A Duke assistant professor of physics since 1992, Springer "has become known among our undergraduates as a demanding teacher, but students are still lining up to take her course because of the inspiration she provides," Mueller wrote to Duke's Center for Teaching and Learning. In fact, Springer not only taught Fundamentals of Quantum Mechanics for the past five years, but also has started another called Applications of Quantum Mechanics, the chairman noted.
"These two courses have made an important contribution to the modernization
of our upperclass undergraduate teaching program," Mueller added. "Springer
has been one of the driving forces behind this process, injecting new ideas
and spending much time and energy to convince older faculty that it is
important to offer challenging courses to our students."
Another wrote, "Dr. Springer was the best teacher I've had at Duke. She does a great job of teaching a very difficult subject, and class is lots of fun."
A third added: "The most difficult and interesting course I have taken
since I've been at Duke."
"There are so many branches of cutting-edge research that rely on knowledge of quantum mechanics," she added. "It's your window into some of the most interesting physics that is currently happening."
What Springer really likes about teaching is watching the comprehension spread among her students like a wave, she said. "You take a student who is confused and talk to him or her and you really get to see the transition, the enlightenment. Then you can watch the students interact with one another and see how the whole process kind of balloons.
"I'm always trying to think of ways to get my point across and allow the students to grasp a particular concept. It's a very interactive process. I think it is important to be very flexible and attuned to each individual student so that you can discover just exactly what she or he needs to see or hear in order to overcome misconceptions. I try to think of examples, often from everyday life, to illuminate a point. "It requires thinking on your feet, and I find this a lot of fun. It's very different from research, but it's very rewarding." Springer is spending the current calendar year with research colleagues at the University of Washington pursuing her interests in quantum chromodynamics, which describes the "strong force" that binds quarks together to form protons and neutrons within atoms.
Article in Duke Dialogue by Monte Basgall
Last modified: 22-Feb-00